By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Washington's governor on Friday vetoed most provisions of bill to establish state licensing for cultivation and distribution of medical marijuana, saying she did not want to put state employees at risk of federal prosecution.
Governor Christine Gregoire said she was swayed by a legal opinion issued earlier this month by federal prosecutors threatening to crack down not only on dispensary owners and growers but on state regulators enforcing the proposed law.
The Democratic-controlled legislature passed the bill in response to a recent proliferation of storefront dispensaries that are neither explicitly permitted nor banned under the 1998 voter-approved state law legalizing pot for medical purposes.
The vetoed bill would have directed the state Health Department to devise a system for regulating and licensing medical marijuana dispensaries and directed the state Agriculture Department to do the same for growers.
Gregoire, however, let stand several minor provisions, one allowing collective gardens for medical marijuana patients of up to 45 plants total but no more than 15 per person.
The law previously authorized a 60-day individual patient supply of up to 24 ounces and 15 plants.
Although cannabis is still listed as an illegal narcotic under federal law, 15 states and the District of Columbia have statutes decriminalizing marijuana for medical reasons, according to the National Drug Policy Alliance.
A handful of those states -- Colorado, New Mexico, Maine and Rhode Island among them -- also have enacted licensing and regulatory controls over medical marijuana suppliers.
Colorado alone has 800 state-licensed dispensaries and growers, said Tamar Todd, an alliance attorney in California.
The number of pot growers and storefront clinics in some states, including Washington, has surged since the U.S. Justice Department said in October 2009 that it would no longer prosecute patients who use medical marijuana, or shops that dispense it, in states that have legalized it.
In recent months, however, the Justice Department has taken a hard line against what it considers illegal drug activities conducted under the guise of state medical marijuana laws.
In March, federal agents raided marijuana greenhouses and dispensaries in 13 cities across Montana in a crackdown that federal prosecutors said was aimed at supposed medical cannabis suppliers who were engaged in large-scale drug trafficking.
Earlier this month, Washington's two U.S. attorneys, Jenny Durkan of Seattle and Michael Ormsby of Spokane, said in a legal opinion that new state controls on medical marijuana cultivation and distribution would not render growers, dispensary operators or even their landlords and financiers immunity from federal prosecution and civil actions.
Moreover, they wrote that "state employees who conducted activities mandated by the Washington legislative proposals would not be immune from liability" from prosecution.
Gregoire said federal prosecutors in Colorado and Rhode Island had taken similar positions in recent days.
"I will not subject my state employees to prosecution. That would be irresponsible on my part," Gregoire, a Democrat, told reporters. "That's the clear reason for what I'm doing."
She pointed to a series of raids of dispensaries by federal agents in Spokane on Thursday as "an indication that we need to take the U.S. attorney at his word."
But Todd said talk of prosecuting state employees amounted to an empty threat.
"There's nothing in federal law that makes it a crime for a state employee to regulate and license medical marijuana," she said, adding that the alternative to regulation is a "chaotic system" that makes "less clear who is in compliance."
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Peter Bohan)